I am positive this is the bridge that used to carry the trundling electric streetcars over the deceptively calm South Saskatchewan River. I rode on one of those electric buses once. I left my book in the back window. It was “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. Of course, my book wasn’t there by the time I rode the bus back across the river, and I was devastated; it was a tome my grandmother had suggested to me, and I did everything my grandmother suggested.
An afternoon of heavy, heart-rending sobs in the strange little stone house on King Street, and then back to the hospital after supper. My grandmother smiled at me. “You know, it’s funny,” she said.
“I don’t think it’s funny at *all*!” I moaned. “Huck was trying to thread a needle.”
“No, sweetie. I think it’s funny that you’re this upset about it; it’s just a book!”
But it wasn’t just a book. It was the escape I’d brought with me, the fantasy that took me away from this city with its construction and sirens and Too Many People. It was the way out of this hospital with green and yellow walls, with people moaning in darkened rooms, curtains fluttering around beds that could hold anything, with any number of arms. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was my release from the knowledge that my grandmother was shrinking, growing smaller and more brittle, outshrinking her false teeth. While we slept in a fancy house on a fancy street in a fancy city, Nama was busy dying. It was not ‘just a book.’
She must have seen that on my face. She patted the corner of the bed, and I sat close to her but not with her – I couldn’t snuggle up beside her because she was covered in Gentian Violet, and didn’t want to get it all over ‘hell’s half acre’. She’d drawn me a picture of the ‘little chink doctors’ who’d all come in to watch her dying – it was a learning hospital. That picture was in the book, holding my place. She’d drawn it in a shaky hand, and the stark white paper was stained with violet streaks – like my grandmother herself; her vibrant and brilliant soul streaking across the white plains of death.
“You know, I have that book.”
I nodded glumly.
“I’ll ask your uncle to bring it from home.”
“Okay,” I whispered. What I really wanted to say was please stop dying. I don’t know how to do this without you. I haven’t heard all your stories. You haven’t taught me about cinnamon buns yet. I can see you dying; I know with every ounce of you that slips away.
She held my hand, squeezed it, her teeth clackety when she smiled. “That’s one of my favourite books, too. Maybe when I get out of here, we’ll find you a new one.”
“Yeah,” I said, and tried to smile.
I knew, even though she did everything she could to lie about it, even though everyone in the family lied to me about it. About the shadow of death skittering around the room, hiding in the shadows behind the curtain, under the sink in the bathroom. There was always a part of me that wondered what would have happened had I not lost that book.
Twenty-four years ago, with the ice still on the river, just like today. I know you are free, now, but I wish I knew when this would get easier.